Looking back, it’s quite ironic that my own spiritual awakening was started by a conspiracy theory. I created a separate episode about this story, but here I’d like to go into the core of the matter, and explore why we tend to believe in conspiracy theories and how exactly they spring to life. Do you believe in one?
If you do, you’re not alone. According to a survey, half of the general public in the USA endorse at least one conspiracy theory. So why are these theories so widespread, and what does a typical believer look like? You shouldn’t imagine all of them as lonely paranoids tucked away in their mom’s basement researching the internet all day long and coming up with crazy hypotheses.
Scientists found that conspiracists come in all shapes and sizes, and have different motivations and perspectives. One type is indeed the mentally ill, who suffer in paranoia and delusional mental disorder, and show highly irrational behavior. This is when such theories become dangerous, and negatively affect relationships, carreer options and life in general.
But not all conspiracists are paranoid, most of them are completely sane. In fact, belief in conspiracy theories has an evolutionary benefit, so it likely won’t die out in the future. Even our ancestors agreed that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Those who were more cautious than others had a higher chance for survival.
For example, when they heard a strange noise in the forest at night, they could either dismiss it, or they could become frightened thinking that a predator was lurking in the dark. Of course, most of the time it was simply the wind blowing, or a small bird making noises, but occasionally it was indeed the dangerous threat they feared the most. With time, they learned to make sense of the world on fear-based thinking.
It can also be said that belief in conspiracy theories is one form of magical thinking, similarly inherited from our ancestors. While we’re trying to make sense of the world, we automatically search for patterns among often unrelated events. We also regularly assume a sense of agency behind these events, sometimes in the form of an omnipotent God, other times in the form of an invisible group pulling the strings in the background.
Our minds cannot deal with uncertainty and randomness, because we feel powerless and vulnerable amongst the unknown. When we face unusual and unexpected events, we immediately search for an explanation, even if it’s not true. To win back our emotional equilibrium, any explanation is better than no explanation at all. But whenever our emotions come into play in getting to the core of the truth, it always leads to logical fallacies because we cannot think clearly.
Not surprisingly, studies have also shown that believers in conspiracy theories are also much more likely to hold other magical, supernatural, occult, paranormal or religious beliefs. Furthermore, they are less educated, distrusting of other people, and feel politically or socially alienated. In general, they lack power, and feel that they lost control over their own lives. Instead of taking the responsibility, they blame the powerful for controlling them through twisted and hidden methods.
Searching for scapegoats for all the bad things that happen in the world is hardly a new phenomenon. In a time when religious thinking dominated the worldview of the masses, the Devil was the ultimate conspirator. But as we shifted into a more scientific era of big businesses, powerful banks and bureaucratic governments, our image of the scapegoat has also been renewed. But the connection between the Devil and worldly evil groups is still evident, especially in the case of the Illuminati, who are purported Satan worshippers.
The allegations about the Order of the Illuminati is the conspiracy theory above all. They are said to be behind all conspiracies, in an effort to bring about a New World Order, just like the Devil used to be behind all evil, trying to establish Hell on Earth. Although the Illuminati was a real historical group, it was also short-lived and disbanded only after 8 years. But if there’s no evidence for its current existence, why is this idea so popular?
Interestingly, we can trace back the explosion of most conspiracy theories to certain works of fiction that were taken a bit too literally. Behind the claims concerning the Freemasons, there were certain Nazi and other anti-semitic writers who connected Freemasonry with Jews. Notably, it all started with a 1943 French propaganda film titled Occult Forces, trying to prove an alleged Jewish-Masonic plot. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was another famous but fabricated piece claiming to describe a secret Jewish conspiracy for world domination.
It’s ironic that Hitler used this against the Jews to make himself more popular, while he himself had the same goal, and in fact almost reached it. It’s not uncommon from political leaders, established governments and religions in power to accuse their enemies of secret plots, so they can legitimize their attacks and actions against them in the eye of the general public.
The same thing happened to the Illuminati, who opposed the ruling class and instead promoted the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. It was quickly banned, but its legend still lives on. In this case, their popularity is connected to the infamous Playboy magazine, and to one individual in general: Robert Anton Wilson.
It all started with the The Discordian movement, also dubbed the greatest fake religion of all time, a collective that wished to cause civil disobedience, practical jokes and hoaxes. In the 1960s of the hippie era, a small text appeared published by this group: Principia Discordia. As part of the counter-culture movement, this group wanted to create anarchy by disseminating false information through media, and for some reason they chose the Illuminati as one of their main themes.
Wilson used to work for the Playboy magazine, and he and others started sending in fake letters about this secret and elite group. It was an early attempt to awaken people to the dangers of fake news, but their plan backfired, and people just started to blindly believe in these stories. The small text was followed by a three part fiction novel series, that attributed all sorts of things as cover-ups plotted by the Illuminati.
The biggest problem with conspiracy theories is that they’re unfalsifiable, at least for the true believers. No matter how much evidence you show them against their claims, they take it as further proof, saying that they – the Illuminati, the Freemasons or whoever else – must have planted the evidence themselves to cover-up their existence.
Conspiracists believe that the Illuminati is so powerful that not only can they control everything, they can also erase all traces and remain invisible. This lack of falsifiability is again similar to the Christians who think that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. So in reality this is just the same old circular logic in a new guise.
I’m not claiming that all conspiracy theories are false, but most of them probably are. Instead of wasting your time on them, trying to find scapegoats responsible for your own hardships, I urge you to look into the mirror, and start with yourself.
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